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C'est la Z

Teachers Can Learn CS and CS people will go into teaching

A friend's post brought my attention to a new graduate CS Education Certificate program. It's not a New York State program so isn't in competition with what I do but it's the type of program that I was afraid of. The type that will hurt CS education more than it will help. There was enough discussion following the Facebook post that I thought I'd write about it here.

Before talking about the program itself, one issue that came up multiple times in the Facebook thread is that old red herring - we can't teach teachers real CS because if they know the real deal they'll all go into industry. I mean, who would want to teach with all those high paying tech jobs.

I call BS on this.

First, let's look at math and science. While it's true that since no child left behind, teacher certificate has been greatly neutered. Today you can be a math teacher and know math or you can be a math teacher who took only "math-ed" classes and barely know high school math. Back in the day you had to know math or whatever your field was.

New York's always been the financial capital of the world and somebody with a decent math background could always get a better than teacher paying job on the street. Beyond that there have always been plenty of other better paying options yet we have math teachers. Same for science. We've got big pharma over in New Jersey yet we have science teachers. Sure, math and science teachers are harder to find than say English teachers but somehow they seem to be out there.

The same will be true for CS teachers as long as there's a path towards a career. Up until recently there were very few CS teaching positions and no certification programs so if you were a CS minded person and wanted to teach you had two options - get a certification in another area like math and try to teach CS anyway or go into another field. Now that pathways into the profession are starting to exist and one can forge a career teaching CS those CS minded teachers to be can indeed enter the field. This will take time but it will happen.

Related is the old "you can't be it if you can't see it." Up until recently most schools didn't offer CS so while students could see and be inspired by say a history or math teacher and then follow in their career footsteps the possibility of being a CS teacher never existed. Now it does. True, we're offering CS in far too few schools and even in those schools we aren't reaching all the kids but it's a long road and we're just starting the trek.

This journey will take years if not decades but at least we've started the journey.

A critical piece will be the graduate preparation programs which brings us back to the certification program I mentioned at the start.

Professional development and workshop models have been an important first step to expose large numbers of existing teachers to CS and to kickstart CS around the country but it isn't sufficient. PD is invariably tied tightly to a product and is for the most part mass training. It's not a model that can truly build top flight teachers. It's an important part of phase 1 but we have to go beyond it.

That's where the schools of education come in. They're the ones preparing new teachers and ultimately they will have to prepare CS teachers as well. No matter what, well resourced schools will find knowledgeable teachers but under resourced schools will, as usual, have to take what they can get. Strong programs will create strong teachers for these schools. Weak ones will leave our under resourced schools further behind and this is why I go nuts when I see a bad program that purports to prepare K12 CS teachers.

The program in question requires the following courses:

  • Computer Science Principles (3 credits)

  • Java Programming (4 credits)

  • Computational Thinking in K-12 Classrooms (3 credits)

  • Equity in Computer Science Education (2 credits)

  • Methods of Inclusive Computer Science Teaching (3 credits)

So to start you're taking 7 graduate credits in APCS Principles and APCS-A and that's basically it for CS content. It's the quintessential you take it you teach it. Heck, you might as well offer APCS-P to 10th graders then just choose an eleventh grader to teach it the following year. These are not graduate level classes. Now, I get it, you have to start somewhere and you want to be able to take in candidates with no prior CS experience. That's fine - you can start with a basic programming course but this program both begins and ends there.

It also offers a 3 credit class in Computational Thinking. I find this interesting. I'm guessing it's focused on teaching the younger grades and as aside, this whole program looks like it would be pretty good for an elementary school teacher. It just loses credibility as a K12 program that includes high school. Based on course number it looks that it's classified as a Teaching and Learning course not a Computer Science course so I really question what it's all about anyway. It also got me thinking - CS programs as far as I can tell don't have their students take a class in computational thinking. Between the CS and other requirements we learn it but might not even use the label.

There are also two other teaching and learning courses - Methods and Equity in CS. They could be fine but given what the overall design of the program is, who knows.

As I said before, this sounds like a great program for an elementary school teacher but I certainly wouldn't my kids taught in High School by a teacher prepared in this way. I want my math teachers to know math, history teachers to know history, and yes, CS teachers to know CS.

I get it - we need to start from 0 but when you're creating a graduate program the end product has to be a truly prepared teacher or you're doing a disservice to the teacher candidate, their students and to the field as a whole.

The thing is that you can do it right. I think our program at Hunter does and the early results from our first cohort are confirming this.

Our first course is essentially a APCS-A alike because we know you have to start form the floor. We expect our teachers to come in with at least a little programming experience but given all the tutorials, MOOCs, and standalone courses available I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a teacher candidate to do a little pre-work to get ready. We also point potential students to resources where they can get up to speed.

From there we go to data structures and also a topics course - depth and breadth and as a fourth CS course we have an ethics course that includes a strong programming component rather than just reading case studies and articles. We complement the CS with a methods course and a curriculum design course and also fieldwork which is reuquired by NY State.

We talk about APCS-A and APCS-P in our CS Ed classes but don't design our program around them. A teacher should not only be able to work with a provide curriculum but also be able to design their own.

I think we're getting it right and I think the reason for this is that it's designed by teachers who both know CS and have been teaching it successfully for a long time and it's designed to prepare the types of teachers we want to work with.

Yes, you have to start at nothing but you don't want to end there and the more good programs launch the more good teachers we'll produce.

If we build them, they will come.

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